Fareed Zakaria: At War with History
[Originally published on CounterPunch, April 25, 2012]
Political commentator Fareed Zakaria, in a recent Time magazine article entitled "A Region at
War with Its History," ponders the question, "Why does it seem that democracy has such a hard
time taking root in the Arab world?"
For insight, Zakaria turns to a recent
academic paper examining the "democratic deficit" in the Middle East and its link to the ongoing
Arab Spring. The paper, written by Harvard economist Eric Chaney, argues that this deficit happens
to correspond with the areas originally conquered by the Arab armies following the Prophet
Muhammad's death: the Middle East and Central Asia from Palestine to Pakistan, and most of North
Africa. The usual suspects of religion and culture are ruled out as obstacles to democratic change.
Instead, the culprit is history.
The correlation between medieval Arab movement and the region's democracy deficit is never
identified, by either Zakaria or Chaney. Zakaria, writing for a general audience, states that "there
was something in the political development of the Arab imperial system that seemed to poison the
ground" against pluralistic directions. Chaney, writing for an academic audience at the Brookings
Institution, laments that the "data limitations preclude an investigation of the precise channel(s)
of causality," but observes that "historic control structures have left a legacy of weak civil
societies where political power is concentrated today in the hands of military and religious leaders
that work to perpetuate the status quo." The region's democratic deficit, Chaney summarizes, is the
product of its "unique political equilibrium."
In other words, both men chalk up the effect the Arab armies and the Arab-Islamic Empire had on the
lands they conquered to the following: Something.
What is conspicuously glossed over in both Zakaria's article and Chaney's paper is Western
involvement in the Middle East's path of development. In the latter, the Ottoman Empire is mentioned
once in passing, along with a brief, abstract reference to "colonizers." But the colonizers (i.e.,
Britain and France), for Chaney, merely play a bit part. Both writers attempt to confine the
discussion strictly to the Arab world, to the point that when an outside actor enters the situation,
the behavior of that actor is subsumed and becomes part of the Arab narrative. The alien ceases to
be foreign. As Chaney states:
Despite the many changes that Arab-conquered regions have undergone over the subsequent 200 years
[since Napoleon's arrival in Egypt in 1798], both colonizers and native rulers ... seem to have
worked to perpetuate the historic concentration of political power in the hands of the ruler.
The wording here is revealing. The "many changes" are set apart from how the region has been managed
- set apart from the management that brought about those changes in the first place. At the very
most, Western Europe "seems" to have simply perpetuated the problems that were already there.
This thinking is orientalist in nature and runs deep in Western culture, not least of which in the
United States. Chaney is just exhibiting the sophisticated, academic version. The layperson's
variant is less genteel, but superior just the same. When one hears a person condescendingly bring
up terrorists receiving virgins upon arrival in paradise, or Muhammad's marriage to the tender-aged
Aisha, or the Arab-religion-violence equation, the implication is that the Middle East is and has
always been a basket case. And therefore, US-European dominance and intervention are ultimately a
trifle in the broader historical scheme: the region would be a mess anyway, and for proof, look at
the span of its history. Simply put, even when we do something, it still amounts to nothing.
Chaney goes on to quote esteemed Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, who abstracts the issue even
further by mentioning the role of "modernization" in the region's history - the term being code for
what the "colonizers" did. Lewis, it should be noted, made a career out of de-emphasizing Western
intervention in the Middle East many decades ago.
While Chaney correctly concludes that the democratic deficit is not the product of the region's
cultural, ethnic or religious characteristics, the petroleum factor is also ruled out. The reasoning
is that some of the lands conquered by the Arabs were not oil rich, and that being the case, some
modern Arab nation-states are oil rich and some are not. When the petroleum exporting states are
removed from the analysis, the data are the same for non-exporters; that is, the effect of oil does
not attribute to the overall lack of democracy. Oil states like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq are
in the same boat with those states that are not rich in petroleum like Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
While this is technically correct, the bigger picture is excluded.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire's lands were divided up by Western Europe into nation-states.
These new countries - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq - eventually achieved a kind of
independence, but the individuals and groups that ended up ruling these states had been approved by
Britain and France. The Middle East was strategically valuable, and oil quickly became part of the
calculation. Winston Churchill described the region's petroleum wealth as "a prize from fairyland
beyond our wildest dreams." With this kind of real estate, the newly modernized Middle East needed
to be managed appropriately. Leaders there were to satisfy those criteria consistent with European
interests. Things would not be left to chance - to the "desires and prejudices" of the region's
inhabitants, as one British foreign secretary put it. And to ensure stability, states were not
cherry-picked based on natural resources; the entire region became a sphere of influence.
After 1945, the United States assumed authority over the Middle East, and what the Arab Spring
protesters are pushing against is a system created by Western Europe and, since World War II,
preserved and superintended by Washington. The dysfunctions in the Arab world do not have ancient
roots "going back over a thousand years!" as Zakaria exclaims. The dysfunctions in the Arab world go
back about 90 of them.
Zakaria's article is a good example of the more dangerous kind of dishonest journalism and
scholarship. He belongs to the intellectual elite who have access to power and can (and do)
influence it. In addition to Time magazine, Zakaria's commentary and analysis also appear on CNN and
in the Washington Post. He is on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is
not a cartoonish, right-wing crusader of the Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh stripe. Zakaria is
polished, rational, and businesslike, and provides a glimpse into the echelons that do policy
assessment. His opinions and interpretations indicate roughly where the establishment sits, and in
turn helps inform the opinion of the politically articulate class, usually taken to be 20 percent of
the population. To build his case in the article, as discussed, he cites the work of a fellow Ivy
League academic. The Chaney paper features statistical analysis, charts, tables, calculations - the
works. No bluster, no rants. Dispassionate and clinical.
What is being delivered, however - despite the erudition and refinement - is the same spurious
analysis that misleads and deludes Americans, and in turn allows the creation of conflicts like Iraq
and Afghanistan. What Zakaria and Chaney are in fact helping to create is a democratic deficit.
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